Friday, July 24, 2015

International Commemoration of African Ancestors of the Middle Passage in Oakland, CA

Saturday, June 13, the second Saturday in the month, at 9 a.m. we stood at Lake Merritt in Oakland reflecting on our ancestors as people jogged by, stretched and looked. Of course an assembly of Pan Africans dressed ceremonially in white and in African designs shattered perceptions lodged unconsciously in the minds of most about black people. Like lint, ideas and perceptions stick to our intellectual or thought-producing surfaces engaging us in ways we come to articulate much too late.

After parking, I pressed the button and crossed the street from Merritt Bakery to the side of the street where the Lake is, where I watched black men and women doing Tai Chi – As I walked down the stairs I greeted friends I'd seen too seldom over the past 12 months and met others I didn't know. We were a larger group than ever before, yet not too large. What is lovely about the Oakland gathering was its intimacy.

– When I got to the other side I set up the altar, lit the votive candles (2), put a book in the center with water. Another person added a sea shell. There was a table set up for people to sign in, along with a chair for the eldest person present, Sister Makinyah Kouyate.

Frederick Douglass came to our ancestor tribute in Oakland— We were honored to have the much younger man join us. Currently staying in San Francisco, not many recognized the elder statesman as a youth.  Clean cut, wearing a cloth cap, he took off to address us, we marveled at his bearing and composure, his critique of liberty in an unjust system for a people wronged morally, politically and economically. He shared with us words from his first book, the Autobiography, Written by Himself. He then invited us to join him at Mount Misery, the plantation he is staying at, owned now by Donald Rumsfeld, previously owned by the haunting slave-breaker Edward Covey.  

A play on stage at Cuttingball Theatre in San Francisco that weekend. Giovanni Adams, the actor portraying young Douglass said, if anyone wanted to attend, just tell the theatre Frederick Douglass invited them (smile).

The day was beautiful, sunny, warm – the geese were swimming in threes on the calm Lake in the center of Oakland, near downtown.  I learned that week that the second Saturday is also the Yoruba New Year. The participants ranged in age from about seven to past eighty. Friends were out jogging; just a few feet from us there was a personal trainer and his client preparing to run. A friend jogged by, another man stopped, poured libations and then continued on his way.

One sister spoke of the importance of maintaining our body temple, the importance of keeping it fit and in good health. She said one way to do this is to monitor what we consume. She said she had had many unnecessary or preventable surgeries. Health, both physical and mental is wealth. This was echoed by others who followed her to the pier to pour libations and give thanks.

I felt heavy, yet as people called their families’ names I began to feel able to speak. After the libations two sisters shared lovely poetry, a piece by Maya Angelou, Prayer, and an original piece written at an Ancestor Libation last year.

After announcements there was a collective recitation of the 42 Laws of Maat with commentary by scholar, Molefi Asante, Ph.D.  Sister Yaya then closed the circle and Sister Makulla shared information about the Maafa Commemoration Foundation and the Lest We Forget/Umbuntu Council. There was so much to do that day, lots of choices: Juneteenth in San Francisco, the Berkeley World Music Festival, Black Performing Arts Exposition opening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. . . .  I ended up taking my friend and her mother home and then going to the health food store for supplements and kale, and then I went home to do laundry and prepare for school the following week.

The evening before a friend and I went to hear Thomas Mapfumo and the Black Spirits. He is on tour with his latest project, Danger Zone and Lion Songs, the second compilation to accompany the biography by the same title. At Ashkanez Music and Dance Center in Berkeley he played the acoustic versions many of the new songs. This was a delightful surprise—in this way, we were really able to hear the subtle nuances of the work –

Julia Chigamba and many other Zimbabweans and friends were in the audience, so we were treated to a floor show everyone was invited to participate in. People danced with unopened bottles of water on their heads. One woman, with skills, danced with a cup of water on hers and did not spill one drop.

My friend, Zoe, from Chicago and I went back stage afterward to buy CDs and meet the Lion of Zimbabwe, Mr. Mapfumo, called such for his fierce sense of righteous and his advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised people. Mapfumo’s music formed much of the soundtrack of Zimbabwe’s revolution. Afterward he was so happy; this happiness turned to despair when the victors began to mistreat their people. He composed an album, which made it impossible for him to remain in his country. He has been in exile for 22 years.

As Mapfumo spoke of home, one could see the nostalgia in his face. His tour takes him to Mozambique this year. The artist says people are asking him to come home. I wonder if he will dare try it. There is another book coming out in July, this one written by Mapfumo’s people.

The reason why I wanted to see Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, the day before Libations for African Ancestors was to talk to the ancestors—Shona music is the music of the ancestors. The music Mapfumo plays is sacred, especially the folkloric tune which he opened the first set with, Varimudande (People of Dande): A spiritual song from the mbira repertoire. The words talk about “the spiritual background of our people, our ancestors.”

It was a beautiful evening and beautiful weekend for African Ancestors. Ashay!